Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Korean Taekgyeon Association(s)

Imagine a situation in which you cannot speak English but begin to learn slowly, taking lessons with an American teacher. After about a year and a half, you put your studies on hold for another year. Then, you get a great opportunity to study abroad! Unfortunately, the English language program is in Scotland. So you hop on a plane to Edinburgh and, upon arrival, wonder if anything you learned from your American teacher is even going to begin to help you understand what the heck all these ruddy Scots are saying.

Or suppose you've been learning how to swing dance, having first picked it up in Philadelphia. After some time, you go home to LA and make a beeline for the first swing dance venue you see an advertisement for. Unfortunately, none of the footwork you've just barely mastered is, well, working for you. After half an hour of utter confusion, a particularly astute dance partner identifies the problem: "You learned lindy, didn't you? This is a West Coast swing bar."

This is the kind of situation I currently find myself facing. Actually, the swing dance style mix-up literally did happen to me once, but I'm now referring to my decision to continue studying the Korean martial art taekgyeon this summer. Previously, I studied taekgyeon in Changwon for about a year and a half, and I even went as far as obtaining my first-degree black belt. So, I had been looking forward to picking up where I'd left off this summer.

However, two obstacles to this goal have surfaced. The first is that, having never practiced while I was in California this past year, I'd forgotten pretty much everything that I'd learned. Secondly, the closest taekgyeon training center in the same league as the one I'd joined in Changwon was too far away from where I live in Seoul, so I had to join a different league (or association). And the style of taekgyeon at this gym is so different that I basically have to re-learn the basics!

That's right, even in such a small country, for a traditional martial art that almost nobody practices anymore, there are still a number of different leagues or associations for taekgyeon that practice the art differently. According to my taekgyeon masters, there are three. But after doing some random and confusing Googling and Naver searching, it looks like there could be as many as half a dozen. Here's a list of some organization names that I found:

한국택견협회 - Korean Taekgyeon Association
세계택견본부 - World Taekkyon Headquarters
결련택견협회 - Kyulyun Taekyun Association
대한택견연맹 - Korean Taekkyon Federation
현함윗때태껸연구회 - World Wide Taekkyeon Organization

In Changwon, I trained at a gym associated with the first one, KTA. Now, in Seoul's Gwanak District, the gym I go to is part of the second one, WTH. Then there's the Kyulyun Taekyun Association, which is supposedly the third. And the other two... well, the WWTO is based out of Los Angeles, which makes it unique. But I'm not sure, really, how they're all related. Taekgyeon history purportedly goes back thousands of years, but its modern iterations are all about three decades old. Even so, the variations are quite striking. All three styles teach taekgyeon a little bit differently. Frankly, all they seem to have in common is how they romanize the first syllable of the name of the sport.

(For the linguists out there, regardless of spelling, the proper pronunciation is [tʰɛk̚.k͈ʲʌn]. The diacritic below the [k] represents 'strong/tense' articulation, whatever that really is...)

Anyway, the long and short of it is, I'm happy to be practicing martial arts again, but it's definitely a struggle, because I have to undo bad habits, reconsider how I think about every movement before executing it, and accept that even though I have a black belt, I'm still just a beginner. It's a humbling experience. I've had to come to terms with the fact that in order to improve, one has to admit that one is not perfect, or even the exact opposite of perfect. Or, to put it bluntly, you can't get good at it until you realize you're not good at all.

On top of that, my new gwanjangnim, or master/instructor, isn't really the most patient guy. I kick once, and he cuts in, saying, "No, no, no, no, no! Like this." I kick once more, and he cuts in... Rinse, wash, repeat. Haha. Obviously, he makes every move look as easy as eating rice cake while lying down*. But he's also lightly sarcastic and easily distracted. He can't seem to fathom how I can be strong enough to bench press him yet too uncoordinated to execute a double footsweep. The other day, right in the middle of a warmup, he stopped everything, sat on on my back, and told me to do five push-ups. Then he scolded the younger kids for not taking their training seriously. It was kind of funny.

... Yeah, anyway. Ten hours of taekgyeon a week is doing my mind and body some good, since I was pretty 정신없다 (which means something like... going stir-crazy) beforehand. Because it's a different style, though, I also have to try hard to remain patient despite my inexperience and relish the novelty and the ways my brain expands by learning, instead of getting frustrated with where I am. Flashback to my very first taekgyeon class, more than two years ago! It was always my dream to learn martial arts. When I think about it, I'm in a very lucky position indeed.

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*Reference to a funny Korean idiom I learned the other day: "누워서 떡 먹기".

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